Pisa & Partings

mizpah n. The deep emotional bond between people, especially those separated by distance or death.

After a long day of hiking, we pulled into Pisa fairly late at night and, after a short walk to the hostel, we found ourselves roomed with the same two American girls we had encountered at our hostel in Genoa. It’s a small world after all. While we weren’t particularly thrilled to be in their presence again, this time they were at least a little friendlier and talked to us a bit, though one of them only seemed to be talking to us to show off all the places she had been. As only a freshman in college to be so well traveled, I could only assume that her parents had quite the extensive travel fund in their wallets, but I recognize that I could be making that judgment unfairly.

While on the subject, a brief note about how I myself am funding these travels. It’s probably quite easy for many people to assume I am doing this on some trust fund or parental help but quite the contrary, I am funding these travels greatly on my own. Value of money was something instilled in me by my mother at a very young age and for all my grandfather’s attempts to spoil me, I still grew up with a very frugal and minimalist mind frame. I knew my mother worked hard to give me a good life and that her money did not come easily and thus I ensure not to waste my own. I’m the kind of person who cuts coupons and calculates cents to gram value in the grocery store. I refuse to eat out when I can just as well make myself rice and beans and save myself a great deal of money. Rather than spend money on useless items that weigh me down, I save and spend it on experiences like this one. For the past three summers, I have worked two full time jobs, essentially putting me on the clock from 8am to 11pm every day, and several part time jobs a couple days a week. Even at school, I work three campus jobs and one other mostly online job for a choir in Philadelphia in addition to 20 credit course load. The amount of time I spend working is often considered insane, but my work ethic has always been one of my strongest suits, and I attribute that to nothing but my Butte heritage. But all this hard work and stress over the years has allowed me to save a nice little nest egg so that I can do these sorts of things all on my own dime, and there is something immensely satisfying in knowing that you alone worked hard enough to enable yourself to see the world.

That aside, we woke the next day for one final full day together and we were ready to see what Pisa had to offer. The answer to that question? Not much to be honest. Pisa itself is a very small city, its main center of sporadic and uneventful sights only about a mile in radius. As we wandered through the morning streets, everything was utterly silent and for a while we wondered if we would be able to even find any place open to eat. Was everything closed since it was the day after Easter? Maybe it was just always like this. We jumped on the first open cafe we found for some coffee and pastries, namely these wonderfully rolls of filo dough filled with Nutella. As we continued to wander along side the river, a slow moving sludge of brown water that really makes you appreciate the waters of Montana, we noticed that while Pisa is famous for its leaning tower, everything in Pisa is just a little bit crooked. While passing the sunset colored buildings that cast a deceptively warm glow on the cold and windy day, we noticed the lines of many of them did not quite match and some stooped at just slightly different angles as if no contractor in Pisa has ever heard of a level or protractor. In all its eerie quiet and crookedness, Pisa was odd, not particularly exciting but still beautiful like a memory of something insignificant. The kind of memories you can recall being nostalgic and important at the time but can no longer quite connect to anymore.

As the day drew on, we eventually began noticing more and more open signs lit along the road as we approached the heavy tourist end of town, which turns out to be confined to approximately half a square mile surrounding the Leaning Tower. Big shock there. From the river, one can turn up a street that is suddenly bursting with restaurants, little souvenir shops, and street artists selling their wares. If you manage to avoid being hustled by one of the many people selling selfie sticks and make it to the end of the street, it opens into a large square sporting a couple main museums, a cathedral, and of course, the Leaning Tower. You are instantly greeted with the comical and gregarious sight of hundreds of people pushing against the air or balancing precariously on little fence posts with their legs cocked up like dogs, all in attempt to get that perfect photo. At first, my mothers I were none too keen on looking like idiots but the germ must have rubbed off because by the end, we were up there looking just as stupid to get our cliche Tower photos.

Some fun facts about the Leaning Tower in case you are curious (as my mother and I were). Construction on the Tower began in 1172 when Donna Berta di Bernardo donated 60 silver pieces for the stones that would be become the base of the bell tower. Construction faced immediate problems when they found the ground consisted of soft clay and sand from the Arno and Serchio rivers of which Pisa lies between. The tower began to lean after only completing the second level. Over the next 100 years, construction stopped due to Pisa’s wars with Genoa, Lucca, and Florence but the break ended up being good for the Tower, allowing the soil to settle enough so that it did not topple over. Construction was sporadic until its completion in 1370 and over those years it slowly began to lean more. Fearful it would topple, people have been working ever since to stabilize the Tower and 2008 finally saw a temporary stabilization in movement for the first time since construction was completed. Today, the Tower officially leans four degrees to the south and is predicted to remind there for the next 200 years.

Before leaving the square, we decided to sit and bask in the sunlight along the wall of the cathedral for a time, as we had spent much of the day in chilly wind funneled through the narrow streets. Each time we passed into shadow on our walk, my mother and I would cross the street or turn down onto another until we found sun again. We have become like plants on our travels, seekers of sunlight, neither of us quite prepared for the slightly colder than assumed temperatures we have encountered.

As we had a great deal of time left in the day, we used the next couple hours to wander down to Corso Italia, a street dedicated to nothing but shopping. Shopping has always been a unique pleasure shared by my mother and I even if we don’t end up buying anything. It is fun to just wander among the many racks of clothes seeing where our tastes align and where they diverge. I’ve noticed that over the years, they have grown to converge significantly more than they once did. I attribute that to fashionable progress on both our parts, though neither of us are really to claim any sense of fashion. We make our clothing choices based on what is comfortable, which is probably why 90% of my wardrobe consists of holey blue jeans, flannels, and sweatshirts. We finally wandered back to the busy street by the tower for one final dinner together: bruschetta, pizza, wine, and ice cream, a celebration of some of the main things we had come to love over our travels. I am sure my mother will no doubt be going to the grocery store to purchase some olive oil upon her return.

It was bittersweet as we walked back to the hostel, arm in arm in the settling sun, licking our ice cream cones. Over the past three weeks, through all the good and bad, we could do nothing if not say we had made the most of everything. We had learned about ourselves, about the places we visited, and about each other. And for being around each other for three weeks day and night, we did extraordinarily well and never once really got on each other’s nerves. Not many mothers and daughters could say the same but that is one of the unique things that makes our relationship, our friendship, special. It had been the trip of a lifetime and as I watched her pack her backpack one final time, I dreaded the morning to come.

Our last night of sleep was disturbed by two drunk girls stumbling in at 2am and making a horrendous racket but even I couldn’t be that annoyed as I was not likely to get much sleep that night anyway. When we woke a couple hours later at 4am, we once again shouldered our packs (one more time with feeling!) and set off to the airport. I put off the final moments as long as I could, grabbing us cups of coffee and ensuring my mother she had plenty of time. Yet for all my efforts, we finally stood at the end of the security line and the moment I had dreaded stared me in the face, but even I was not prepared for how hard it would be. Once before I quoted Mia Fontaine from the book Have Mother, Will Travel and it is appropriate to do so again:

I’ve always had trouble with endings. Even as a kid, I’d rarely finish books or movies that seemed sentimental to me, like A River Runs Through It or Where the Red Fern Grows, for the same reason it’s easier to slip out the door than say a tearful good-bye. Mount sitting here on my old bed I’m realizing how much is lost by not doing that. Looking forward carries with it a sense of urgency and movement that almost creates an adrenaline rush, but remembrance has a certain warmth; I never realized how cozy nostalgia can be. Yes, there a tinge of sadness, but it’s not the kind of sadness associated with pain or suffering. It’s a wonderful kind of sadness that I have no desire to avoid or escape.”

I myself have never been good at goodbyes, which is strange considering how many of them I’ve said, most of them more permanent than this one. I’m guess that’s one thing that never gets easier with practice. For a poet and writer whose head is always filled with profound things and uselessly poetic observations, when the appropriate time comes to voice them, they stick in my throat and thus all I could seem to say was, “I’ll be okay. Don’t you worry about me.” But I know she will, just as I will worry about her. We’re all we have in this world and that isolation we face has drawn us much closer than most mother daughter duos can ever hope to be, but the downside is that it makes these partings so much worse. While I know I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself, I’m also not ashamed to say I need my mother. We all do, no matter how old we get and pretending we don’t is childish and immature. It’s taken me a few years to learn that but I’m grateful that I’ve learned it so much faster than most. I know first hand what it is like to not appreciate someone until they are gone and it is a mistake I refuse to repeat with my mother.

In that moment, It suddenly dawned on me how much I had grown. Maybe it was knowing I was about to depart to an entirely forgiven place all on my own that suddenly made me feel prematurely adult, but as we wrapped our arms around each other and cried into each other’s shoulders, I suddenly realized how small she felt in my arms (despite all the bread and ice cream we had eaten). For some reason I’ve held onto the memory of her touch when I wrapped my skinny arms around her waist unable to make my hands meet, when she hunched over to reach my shoulders, when I had to look up into her hazel eyes. Suddenly it seems so sad that I’m as tall as she. We’ve held each other so often as we’ve spiraled together into hell and said goodbye for long periods of time, but this time felt different. This one felt like it was supposed to be a reassurance that I would be okay without the positive knowledge that I would be.

I’ve left so many times and each time it seems to be to go further and further away. First it was Philadelphia, then it was Oxford, now it’s Eastern Europe, almost smack dab on the opposite side of the world from Montana. It is also the longest we will have ever been apart. Before this trip, I hadn’t seen her for seven months but by the time I return for Christmas, it will have been over eight long months, and while I have so many adventures planned in that time that I’m sure it will pass quickly, it doesn’t make that number any less daunting. As children we are told we should yearn to step out on our own, to spread our wings, and while that yearning has undoubtedly been true for me, what they still don’t tell you is that the release of spring strings does not feel liberating at the time. It feels scary and sad.

From the last final embrace, and the tearful, simultaneous breaking of both parties, I watched her weave her way through the maze of security, so close to me, but separated by a thin pane of glass that somehow made her feel years away. Too often, I’ve been the one passing through those metal detectors, brushing away a few tears, then distracting myself from the goodbye with the airport navigation ahead of me. This time, I got to feel what the opposite side feels like, and it’s a terrible, helpless feeling. As she kept turning around to glance back at me, I pretended to be strong, but after the last wave, the last kiss blown over the heads of other rushed travelers, the last mimed “I love you”, when she disappeared in the gated area, I could finally break. I don’t usually like crying in front of others and so I found a remote corner chair in the airport and told myself it didn’t matter if some others saw me. What were they to me? Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling of unease and self consciousness sitting there. I’ve always hated airports maybe because they feel lonely to me; they make me feel small, vulnerable, insignificant.

After saying goodbye, I had originally planned on taking a bus from Pisa to Florence where I would then catch another bus to Zagreb, Croatia, but the prospect of waiting in that horrible airport, taunting me, for another four hours was unbearable. Plus I found out you needed to book bus tickets ahead of time, and so I walked back to the train station just as dawn began to spread light color on the horizon. While pulling away from the train station, my head propped against the window and my iPod playing sad country music, I couldn’t help but notice how empty the seat across from me looked. As the beautiful landscape of Italy rolled by, I looked up at the pastel colored sky, growing lighter and lighter, hoping I might be able to catch a glimpse of a 6:30am airplane streaking across the sky, chased by the rising sun. Yet though our paths diverged, I was comforted in knowing our love is more vast and deep than the oceans between us. From the time I was very small, my mother always used to tell me, “I love you to the moon and back,” and ever since then it has become our phrase, the words that bind us together. And compared to the distance between earth and the moon, Montana and Croatia don’t seem so far apart after all.